Writer: Rose Skelton, Images: Alistair Redding
A Londoner is giving African cuisine a new spin (Originally published October 2015)
THE FIRST-FLOOR DECK OUTSIDE ZOE’S GHANA Kitchen gives the perfect view of London’s hectic Brixton street market. “We’ve got Brixton market right there – it makes my life as a chef so very convenient,” says Zoe Adjonyoh, a south London-born chef of Irish and Ghanaian heritage. She also buys fresh produce from Ghanaian shops in Hackney, east London. “I get my mackerel round the corner; I get my fresh stuff, like plantain, here,” she says, pointing towards the market. “There’s a lady called Rosie who makes puff-puff for me. It’s all here.” Adjonyoh used to make puff-puff, the much-loved Ghanaian doughnut, herself, but these days space is tight. That’s because the 37-year-old chef, who started her cooking career just five years ago making a one-pot peanut stew at Hackney Wick arts festival, now has a fixed restaurant space at POP Brixton.
POP is a newly opened complex created from shipping containers to house cafes, restaurants, shops, performance venues and workshops run by local entrepreneurs. Adjonyoh’s container and attached deck aren’t more than a few feet wide and the kitchen is little more than a counter at one end. To say that space is limited is an understatement. But what comes out of the kitchen – crispy okra tempura, deeply flavoured plantain chips, griddled lamb cutlets with Adjonyoh’s famous spiced peanut sauce, strips of chicken with a hot jollof buttermilk coating, piled with spring onions and hot red peppers and a bowl of smoked fish mayonnaise to dip them in – are concoctions that could have come out of a fully staffed professional kitchen.
“I change my menu and recipes according to the environment I’m cooking in,” says Adjonyoh, who still does pop-up restaurants at festivals like the Isle of Wight’s Bestival, Manchester Food Festival and Africa Utopia on London’s South Bank. “So here we do lamb cutlets, marinate them in fresh ginger, seasoning, cayenne pepper, griddle them lightly so they’re served pink, and then add the peanut sauce, freshly crushed peanuts, spring onions,” she says. “It’s more about the meat and the combination of the spicy marinade, and then the sweet spice of the sauce brings it together. That’s reinterpreting a very traditional dish and modernising it,”
Reinterpreting traditional recipes – in this case groundnut stew – and making them more accessible to British restaurant-goers is what Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen is all about. Just around the corner, in Brixton, Loughborough Junction and Walworth Road, are Ghanaian restaurants that serve the traditional dishes that would be found in any chop house in Ghana. Adjonyoh’s concept – although not conflicting – is something new.
“The whole idea of Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen is different because it’s a more inclusive space, a more inclusive menu, a more inclusive idea. My idea is to take really great Ghanaian food ingredients and flavours, and sometimes they’re traditional recipes and sometimes they’re not, sometimes it’s my take on a thing or I’ll respin it. The whole point of everything, including the decor, the laidbackness, the atmosphere, is all about inclusiveness and accessibility. My concept is to make this cuisine as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.”
The restaurant buzzes with energy. The tables and African fabric-covered benches – just a handful in total – are made from recycled wood; a wall shelf is made from a sign that once belonged to a pub. On the tables, beer bottles with colourful labels (beers that Adjonyoh designed and had brewed at a micro-brewery) hold sunny flowers. Music plays and customers are typical of Brixton clientele: young, multi-cultural, ready to try anything. “My following has always been pretty wide,” says Adjonyoh, who progressed from selling the one-pot peanut stew at an arts festival to hosting occasional pop-up restaurants known as “supper clubs” in her flat, then at street food festivals, and a two-month residency at a south London pub.
“It’s always been people who were interested in food, rather than anything else. It’s always been people with an inquisitive palate who are a bit more adventurous; or it’s second- and third-generation Ghanaians who’ve experienced Ghanaian food at home,” she says. Her customers with Ghanaian roots are looking for somewhere a bit different to take their friends to for dinner. “It’s a refreshing, fresh space, a nice balance of contemporary dining with what they know of Ghanaian culture, and what they know of a Ghanaian chop bar and a Ghanaian food experience. ”
Food culture in Britain has changed so quickly, says Adjonyoh. “Everyone’s now a foodie.” And African food is the latest segment of an African cultural wave that has swept Britain in the last 10 years. “I’ve always anticipated that there was going to be a follow-through from African music and fashion,” says Adjonyoh. “Rather than it being specifically ‘African’ fashion, it’s been getting absorbed into just fashion.” It’s the same with music, she says. “There’s more recognition of what’s coming out of Africa culturally. It’s more accessible and people are more used to it. I think it’s the same with food. It’s a natural follow-on: art, music, fashion, food. They all go together and it’s just been waiting to happen, really.”
African pop-ups and street-food outlets are everywhere nowadays, Chalé! Let’s Eat stalls sell Ghanaian street food, Nim’s Din is doing Sierra Leone- and Liberian-influenced supper clubs, and Mama Suya is a popular Nigerian pop-up. Adjonyoh is negotiating with a supermarket chain to release a range of her interpretation of Ghanaian sauces.
For her, cooking Ghanaian-influenced food started out as a way to connect to the culture, with which
she didn’t have much contact growing up. Now it’s a focused determination to spread the good word about Ghanaian food to a wider audience.
“I think that’s what keeps fuelling me,” she says, adding that she is about to sign a deal with a publisher to launch her own cookbook. “I’m like, I’ve done this, why not do that now? Why not get a little bit further, why not have a cookbook? Why not have everybody cooking my stuff ?”